Forging a Unique Identity: Bengali Heritage in London

By Shruti Ganapathy | 23 June 2005
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Bangladeshis and East Indians have lived in London for centuries. St Botolph's church in Aldgate records the burial of an East Indian there in 1618. Photo Andy Wood © London Borough of Tower Hamlets

Standing near Aldgate Tube Station in London’s east end, I was wondering what exactly Bengali heritage in the capital would comprise of. Despite the large numbers of Bengalis in London, both from Bangladesh and West Bengal in India, heritage was not a word I would have immediately associated with the community.

A talk with the managing director of The Shadinata Trust, Mr Ansar Ahmed Ullah, aroused curiosity in me. After discussing the organisation’s aims to raise awareness about Bengali culture and heritage, I picked out the Exploring Banglatown and the Bengali East End leaflet and set off to follow its trail.

The trail was organised by Tower Hamlets Council in association with the Shadinata Trust and the leaflet provided historical background about the places of interest it covered.

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The East India Company opened up Bangladesh to trade and many of its warehouses and office buildings are still standing. Photo Andy Wood © London Borough of Tower Hamlets

Approximately 300,000 Bengalis live in London today. Migration of East Indians from the Bay of Bengal can be traced back to 1616 and one third of the residing Bengali population currently lives in Tower Hamlets, the largest Bengali community in the UK.

Eager to explore the area and Asian culture abroad, I began the walk early in the morning and the first stop was the St Botolph's Church in Aldgate. The church’s archives mention the burial of a converted East Indian Christian in 1618, possibly a Bengali.

A couple of stops later, I was gaping at the Lloyd's Insurance building, which was the site of East India House, the headquarters of the East India Company from 1722 to 1873.

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The Shahid Minar monument commemorates the Bengali 'language martyrs'. Photo Andy Wood © London Borough of Tower Hamlets

The East India Company was instrumental in the development of the east end and its Bengali links. In 1757, after the company had taken control of Bengal, as well as bringing precious goods back to Britain they also brought along Asian seamen and domestic servants.

Many of the seamen travelling to Britain with the families of the British Raj’s senior officials were Bengalis. While most returned back to their homeland, some were abandoned by their employers and continued to stay in east London.

The trail then took me through a number of places such as luxury office accommodation on Cutler Street where warehouses of the former East India Company were situated, and Calcutta House, the East India Company tea warehouse, which is now part of London Metropolitan University.

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The entrance to Brick Lane, the heart of London's Banglatown. Photo Andy Wood © London Borough of Tower Hamlets

The high point of the trail was the visit to the Altab Ali Arch on Whitechapel Road. Earlier known as St Mary Matfelon's Churchyard, it was renamed in the memory of a young Bengali clothing worker who was stabbed to death in a racist murder in 1978. His murder prompted the formation of the Bangladeshi Youth Movement.

The Shahid Minar (martyr's monument) to my right was a rather abstract structure believed to represent a mother protecting her children in front of a rising crimson sun. It commemorates the sacrifice of the Bengali ‘language martyrs’ who were shot dead by the Pakistani police in 1952 while protesting against the imposition of Urdu as Pakistan's state language. Bangladesh, prior to its independence in 1971, was a part of Pakistan and was known as East Pakistan.

The Brick Lane area was another interesting aspect of the trail. Filled with shops selling saris and fabrics, dozens of restaurants serving authentic Bengali food and with streets labelled in Bengali, one could almost be mistaken that they walking through Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, not the East End.

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Bengali street signs help to identify the unique character of the area. Photo Andy Wood © London Borough of Tower Hamlets

Important landmarks of Bengali heritage on Brick Lane include Cafe Naz, which was the Naz Cinema in the 1960s and was visited by prominent Bollywood actors of the time, and the Jamme Masjid mosque where worship has been taking place by different faiths for more than 250 years. The Kobi Nazrul Bengalis Arts Centre, on adjoining Hanbury Street, adds to the area’s links with Bengali culture.

The trail ended at the sign of the Black Eagle near Brick Lane’s Old Truman Brewery. The buildings now house a nightclub, which has hosted new music from artists like Asian Dub Foundation, State of Bengal and the Osmani Sounds.

Youth culture has always been vibrant, and particularly so among young Bengalis, who are striving to forge a unique Bengali British identity. They are aiming to identify themselves as British while not losing their Bengali heritage.

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A wide range of Benglai businesses thrive in the Brick Lane area. Photo Andy Wood © London Borough of Tower Hamlets

To help them with this, the Shadinata Trust plans to set up an archive and resource centre where all information on the Bengali community in the UK or Bangladesh can be easily accessed. It also plans oral history projects and a number of text works focussing on issues related to Bengalis.

Mr Ansar Ahmed Ullah felt that prior to the trail there was no group or institution that gave London’s Bengalis a sense of belonging and loyalty. He hopes that the trail, through its repeated displays of Bengali culture, will help strengthen young British Bengalis’ identity.

The Shadinata Trust is planning another Bengali heritage trail to cover the entire borough of Tower Hamlets and all their activities are detailed on their website, www.shadinata.org.uk

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Cafe Naz, former site of the Naz Cinema, where Bollywood film stars gathered in the 1960s. Photo Andy Wood © London Borough of Tower Hamlets

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Shruti Ganapathy is the 24 Hour Museum Untold London Student Journalist covering heritage and diversity stories in the capital.

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